Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A visit from a friend and a trip to a castle

When I returned from Athens, I was lucky enough to come home to a visit from a USC friend. Mary was finishing her bachelor in flute while I was doing my master's, and she has since gone on to complete her own master's and now a doctorate in flute performance! Mary was actually the first flutist I heard play at USC: during our first masterclass, she played a perfect version of the Firebird orchestral excerpt. I remember Bobby turning to me and saying, 'Wow, is she a doctoral student or something?' To which I replied with a horrified look on my face, 'Oh gods, no, she's an undergrad!' With that one minute of playing, I knew not only that Mary was an exceptionally talented musician, but that I was going to experience an amazing level of playing during my time at USC.
Mary and I had a lot of fun during her visit. We ate, drank, and caught up. We also did some sightseeing together! One of the best parts about having guests in town is that you get to be a tourist in your own city. On a beautiful Saturday, we took the train to Frederiksborg Slot, a really beautiful 16th century palace just 30 minutes outside of Copenhagen.
Built for King Frederik II in 1560, the palace you see now was actually completed in 1620 under Christian IV. It was lived in by only three kings: King Frederik II (king from 1559-1588), King Christian IV (king from 1588-1648), and King Frederik VII (king from 1848-1863). The palace was where kings were anointed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
The palace is the largest Renaissance palace in Scandinavia, and is often referred to as the Versailles of Scandinavia. The palace is now a museum of national history.

The palace chapel is very ornate and is still used as a church. In fact, the day we visited, a wedding took place inside the chapel.
The palace chapel is also the home of the Knight's Chapel for the Order of the Elephant and the Order of the Dannebrog, an honor it has held since 1693. The walls of the chapel are covered in these various coats of arms. There are so many, in fact, that the older ones have been moved to the stairwells!
The two different orders: Order of the Elephant and Order of the Dannebrog. They have been awarded to many people, both noble and common, and both Danish and foreign. The Order of the Dannebrog is awarded for meritorious civil or military service, for a particular contribution to the arts, sciences or business life, or for those working for Danish interests. The Order of the Elephant is the highest orders in Denmark, and is headed by the Danish monarch (currently Queen Magrethe). Worn by the royal family, the order may also be bestowed on foreign heads of state. In very exceptional circumstances the order may also be bestowed on a commoner. The most recent holder of the order who was neither a current or former head of state nor royal was Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, a leading industrialist (he created the largest shipping company in the world) and philanthropist. As you can see in this photo, Dwight Eisenhower was awarded the Order of the Elephant.
The palace is surrounded by a lake, which acts as a natural moat. Just outside of the lake/moat are beautiful gardens. There were hundreds of these Kaiserkrone (Kaiser's crown) flowers.
The garden is a formal garden in the Baroque style. You can see a bit of the shaped hedges in the background of this photo.
There were also huge tulips all around. Mary and I really lucked out on the weather; ever since this day, it's been mostly cloudy, a bit chilly, and rainy! Good ol' Danish weather...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Food in Athens

During my time in Greece, I was lucky enough to enjoy not just one but two meals at Michelin-starred restaurants. Accompanied by foodie friends Thomas and Thomas, we ate at Hytra and Varoulko. This photo is one of the dishes served at Hytra, which was my favorite restaurant of the two. This dish features beets prepared in multiple ways (that pink thing in the middle is beet mousse with a sugar-glass cap) and goat cheese. We were served multiple courses at Hytra, including a delicious pork loin and some lovely amuse-bouche of smoked aubergine/eggplant.
This dish was served at Varoulko. There were two really good dishes from this restaurant: this fish dish, and a cuttlefish ink and mozzerella soup. The rest of the meal was a bit unimpressive, though. Fortunately, they had a nice selection of decent Greek wine. And at 40€ for a 4 course dinner, I guess I can't complain too much!
We also enjoyed the 'common' food, like these giant beans, cooked in a tomato sauce with plenty of thyme and oregano.
We also enjoyed many different types of souvlaki, which is small pieces of meat cooked on a skewer. From the left you have a spicy sausage, ground lamb, chicken, and pork. The sausage and lamb were my favorites.
There was also plenty of seafood, like this grilled octopus.
And what trip to Greece would be complete without tzatziki? I lost count the number of times I ordered this; I simply can't get enough!

I was quite surprised at the size of the portions. This steak Thomas ordered was bigger than his head! I thought it was an America thing to have big portions.
Aside from tzatziki and Greek salad, the main staple of our day was a few frappes. Made from instant coffee and condensed milk, this iced coffee not only helped us to cool down from the warm sunny days, but it also kept us on our toes from the caffeine!

Last but not least, ouzo. This anise-flavored aperitif is dangerously tasty, refreshing, and far too easy to drink.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


We rented a car in Athens and drove 180 km northwest to the beautiful and historically significant hill-side town of Delphi. We stayed at a nice hotel, where we not only had use of a great pool, but we also had this awesome view from our balcony!

Located on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis, Delphi is mostly a tourist town. Luckily we were there during a quiet period, so we didn't have to fight any crowds. The valley is very beautiful. You see olive trees everywhere, and goats roam the hillsides, watched over by a shepherd. It was so relaxing to sit by the pool and hear the sounds of the goats' bells in the distance.

We didn't spend the entire weekend lounging around the pool, though. We also visited the amazing ruins of Delphi. This was one of the most religiously significant sites in ancient Greece (it was so important that Delphi was known as the Navel of the World; in other words, it was the center of the world). Dating as far back as the 8th century BCE, Delphi housed the Oracle of Apollo. The Oracle was a priestess, and the god Apollo would speak through her while she was in a trance. The Oracle would sit in the Temple of Apollo, the ruins of which you see here. These ruins date back to the 4th century BCE. The temple is built over chasm, and it is thought that ethylene fumes arose from this chasm. Ethylene fumes can cause violent seizures, so it's likely that the priestess' trances were induced from these toxic fumes!

The Temple of Apollo is not the only ancient structure in Delphi, though it is probably the most important. Similar to the Acropolis, there were also administrative buildings, theaters, and other temples surrounding the Temple of Apollo. Here you see the Treasury of Athens, one of many treasuries that were located in Delphi. They were built by various Greek city states to commemorate victories and to thank the oracle for her advice, which was thought to have contributed to those victories. They are called 'treasuries' because they held the offerings made to Apollo; these were frequently a tenth of the spoils of a battle.

If you look hard enough, you can see that there are engravings all over the marble side of the Treasury of Athens.

Inside the Delphi Museum, you can see several of the original metopes (a rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze), including this one, which I find rather graphic and interesting.

There is also a theater in Delphi. Built in the 4th century BCE, it could hold up to 5000 spectators and gave a phenomenal view of the the Temple of Apollo and the valley below.

There is even a 5th century BCE athletic stadium! The stadium could hold 6500 spectators, and the track was 177 meters/580 feet long and 25.5 meters/83 feet wide.
Chariot races took place in Delphi. This statue, created in 474 BCE, was found near the Temple of Apollo. It was erected to commemorate the victory of a chariot team in the Pythian Games, which were held at Delphi every four years in honor of Pythean Apollo.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


During our stay in Athens, we spent a full day exploring the ruins of the Acropolis. Mind you, the Acropolis isn't just the Parthenon. Rather, it's an ancient citadel with a number of buildings, theaters  and temples. Though the hill has been inhabited since the 4000 BCE, it was only in 500 BCE that Pericles organized the construction of the Acropolis' most famous sites: the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike (the Temple of Athena Nike is the building completely covered in scaffolding).

At the base of the Acropolis is the Theater of Dionysis. This theater was built in the 5th and 4th century BCE and was dedicated to Dionysis, the Greek god of wine and patron god of the theater. The chairs/thrones you see were especially created for VIP theater patrons such as the head priest of Dionysus (I'm pretty sure I could follow that religion... honoring the god of wine) and important politicians.

Here you can see the theater from above.

There is another theater a bit higher up, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Unlike the Theater of Dionysis, which was used for plays, the Odeon was used as a music venue and had a seating capacity of 5000. Built in 161 ACE, it was commissioned by the wealthy Athenian Heordes Atticus in memory of his wife. Is it still an active music venue!

We then headed further up the hill and entered the Acropolis plateau through the Propylaea. A monumental gate, the Propylaea was built in the 430s BCE. In ancient times, the Propylaea served as a controlled entrance to the Acropolis. Those not deemed ritually clean were denied entrance. Luckily, we made it through.

Directly across from the Parthenon is my favorite building on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion. Built between 420 and 406 BCE, the temple was dedicated to the legendary Greek hero Erichthonius (a mythological early ruler of ancient Athens who was raised by the goddess Athena).

My favorite part of the Erechtheion is the Porch of the Maidens. These 6 pillars were actually built to conceal a giant 15-ft beam needed to support the southwest corner! Beautiful and functional.

And of course, we saw the Parthenon. Begun in 447 BCE, the Parthenon served as a temple to the goddess Athena, the patron deity of Athens. It has served many purposes: aside from being a temple, it was also used as a treasury; it was converted to a Christian church in the 5th century ACE and dedicated to the Virgin Mary; during the Ottoman occupation in the 1460s, it was converted into a mosque. As you can see, a part of the Western front is under construction (as my Dad said, "In the history of the Acropolis I bet there has always been scaffolding.").

The Eastern side, luckily, was uncovered.
From the top of the Acropolis hill, you can see the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Though most of the structure is gone, you can get a good sense of just how huge the temple must have been based on the massive size and height of the remaining columns.

Down the hill from the Parthenon is the Temple of Hephaestus. Begun in 449 BCE, this temple was dedicated to the god Hephaestus, the patron god of metal working and craftsmanship.

It makes sense that this temple was dedicated to Hephaestus, as there were numerous potters' workshops and metal-working shops in the vicinity of the temple. Like the Parthenon, this temple was eventually converted into a church. From the 7th century to 1834, it was the Greek Orthodox church of St. George Akamates.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Athens trip - an introduction

For most of the month of May, Bobby is in Athens, Greece, doing research. He is visiting the University of Athens and is working with his colleague Sergios, pictured here. Luckily for me, May is a month with a lot of national holidays in Denmark, so I was able to visit Bobby for 11 days!
During his month-long stay, Bobby is staying in a dorm. While the price is quite nice (4€ a day!), it was not the most ideal sleeping arrangement for a couple. I think it's a testament to our relationship that we slept in a single bed and still like each other! Though I'm pretty sure these bags under my eyes are not leaving any time soon.

We really enjoyed exploring Athens. The history and ancient ruins are simply stunning.
At the National Archeological Museum, we saw statues created as long ago as 3000 BC, and were stunned by the artistry and craft, not to mention the unbelievable realism, that Greek sculptors attained so many years ago. This particular statue is especially interesting. Recovered from an ancient shipwreck in the Mediterranean, half of the statue was buried in sand, while the rest was exposed. The exposed part is the part of the statue that is eroded: different sea creatures eat away at the marble. But the part of the statue that was covered in sand remains pristine!
We also saw some of the slightly more modern cultural sights, including the Evzoni, or Presidential Guards. Don't be fooled by the short skirts and pom-pom-ed shoes, though; these are some of the elite Greek Army infantry men. Guarding the Presidential Palace and Guard of the Unknown Soldier, they have a very unique way of walking. It looks a bit like bull trying to waltz.
Greece is an Orthodox country, so the religious holidays aren't always on the same date as Catholic/Protestan holidays. When I arrived on 5 May, the country was celebrating the Orthodox Easter. We saw little shrines like this all over, including in the parking lot of the dorm.
Our good Danish friends Thomas and Thomas visited us for a long weekend. We had a lot of fun exploring the Acropolis (future post), eating good food (another future post), and traveling north to Delphi (yet another future post) with them. As you may remember, we travelled to London with them last May, and took a week-long driving trip through Jutland, Denmark with them over the summer.

Thomas and Thomas (or T&T, as we like to call them) helped me celebrate my 29th birthday in Athens! The waitress at the restaurant we visited that night was kind enough to put a candle in my dessert, though she didn't sing. But that's ok, I got a nice rendition of the Danish birthday song from Bobby, T&T. All in all, it was a great birthday and a great trip. Bobby and I finally have a tan (which especially suits my California skin), we got to eat and drink new and delicious things, relax by the sea and the pool, and visit some amazing sights. We hope to go back to Greece to visit more of the country, especially the islands!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Long weekend in Porto

Bobby and I spent a long weekend together  in one of our favorite cities: Porto, Portugal. Bobby spent 3 weeks of April in Porto, where he was doing research with an old Stanford colleague.  We love Porto for many reasons, and the weather is definitely one of the reasons! Though Bobby had some chilly and rainy days during early April, Spring had properly set by the time I arrived. Every day I was there was had warm, sunny days.
Another reason we love Porto is it's run-down charm. This city has more abandoned buildings than any other city I've been to, and yet we find this to be part of the city's charm! Of course, there are beautiful well-maintained buildings with amazing tiles and decorative balconies, but the grittiness of the old buildings makes the city feel like it's actually lived in. No museum affect here!
Many of the run-down buidlings are illegally inhabited by various people: out-of-work young men and women (of which, unfortunately, there are many in Portugal), young starving artists, and the usual riffraff. However, this building was too far gone to be inhabited by anyone. It certainly is pretty, though.
Not even churches are spared from abandonment!
Another reason we love Porto is the food. Oh, the food! It's funny, we know several people who have been to Portugal and had terrible food experiences, but we've only had great experiences there (minus a particular meal of wild boar's anus, from our first trip to Porto in summer 2009). We tried a new restaurant this time around: DOP. We enjoyed the full menu course with accompanying wines. After a few amuse-bouche, we enjoyed this wonderful appetizer: foie gras wrapped in apple with a port wine reduction. Delicious!
This dish featured a very large Madagascar shrimp with Portuguese beans and a lobster foam.
This dish featured Portuguese rice (very good), lobster, and a type of fish from the Doro river.
On the side of the dish was this little piece of lobster and special caviar (very prettily presented), which was unlike any caviar I've had. The texture was much more smooth than your typical caviar, and the eggs melted instead of burst in your mouth. Quite luxurious.

We were also served some fantastic Wagu beef. This particular dish was quite creative (though a bit of a parlor trick, which we've seen at several other restaurants): it was served with a glass lid over it, and when the lid was removed, fragrant smoke drifted to our noses. The burnt-looking trigs are actually bread, and the beef was perfectly seared. The next dish, which isn't pictured, was another Wagu beef dish, and it was equally delicious.

The dessert centered around one ingredient: celeriac (celery root). It sounds odd, but it actually works. On the left is a very dark chocolate triangle with a celeriac and creme mousse. Holding it up is a brownie with chopped and roasted celeriac. On the left is a celeriac ice cream, which was quite tasty. All in all, it was a very lovely meal.
But don't worry, Bobby and I don't exclusively eat foam and root vegetable desserts. We also enjoy the food of the common man :) This grilled chicken was really, really good, and we licked our fingers more than once.
We headed to the ocean-side city of Matosinhos, which is just a 30 minute metro ride away from Porto. We enjoyed our favorite Portuguese meal there (and it's a meal we get every time we're in Porto, and often more than once per trip): grilled seafood and vinho verde! We started with some grilled green peppers, which were (sadly) not at all spicy, but still flavorful.

Little fried sardines were served, but we waited for our main course...
Big grilled sardines! Honestly, we can't get enough of these. The crispy, crackly, salty skin, and the perfectly cooked flaky flesh of the fish pair perfectly with a fresh salad, boiled potatoes, and a bottle of vinho verde.
Couple the meal with the warm weather and you get a very happy Carla!
Yet another thing we love about Porto: cheap and good drinks. It's just so lovely to sit at a little café or restaurant overlooking the Doro river while enjoying a pitcher of Sangria.
And, of course, the port wine. Ah, the port! We enjoyed a nice meal at a restaurant accompanied by a bottle of wine. Instead of dessert, we opted for the port tasting. We ordered only one tasting, and it's a good thing, because the server poured us 6 healthy glasses of port! We had a late bottle vintage Graham's, a 1989 vintage tawny Kopke (tied for first place in our opinion), a Niepoort rosé, a Niepoort tawny, a very interesting chilled ruby Kopke, and a 40 year old vintage tawny Graham's (the other first place port).

It was a refreshing and revitalizing weekend in Porto. The food, long walks, afternoon naps, and warm weather prepared will help me to get through this cold Danish spring and prepare me for Athens, Bobby's next adventure!